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The Social Worker: Dept. of Children & Family Services Director Aims to Get More Front-Line Workers

Richard Calica, executive director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Richard Calica’s Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is beset with problems. One Chicago Tribune investigation this spring found that investigators into suspected cases of abuse are spread too thin, putting the agency in violation of a 1991 federal consent decree that resulted from a series of lawsuits. Later, another of the newspaper’s probes showed that more than half of the day-care operations in the state weren’t inspected within a three-year licensing period. And the governor’s and agency’s inspectors revealed that DCFS, prior to Calica’s appointment as executive director in November, had awarded millions to a grantee whose services couldn’t be substantiated.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed a Fiscal Year 2013 budget that would cut the agency by 5 percent — or $45 million. When the legislature is through with the budget, the cuts may be even deeper.

Yet, Calica’s wife, Judy, a social worker in private practice, says: “I haven’t seen my husband as energized about work in quite a while. I don’t hear him complaining about any difficulties.”

Calica, a 66-year-old Highland Park resident who spent 33 years as executive director of the Chicago-based Jane Addams-founded Juvenile Protective Association, is a nationally recognized expert in child welfare. Until 2007, he continued to see social service clients after work hours. 

“I don’t think it was particularly his ambition to be director of the Department of Children and Family Services,’’ Judy Calica says. “He was very satisfied with his work at the Juvenile Protective Association. But I think this was a job that came around at the right time for the right person.”

Child welfare experts in the state, including former DCFS director Jess McDonald, agree. “I think Richard is one of the finest people in the country when it comes to child protection, child safety issues. He’s an excellent leader in this area. We are blessed to have him as director,’’ says McDonald, now a consultant, who ran the agency from 1994-2003 and has been credited with making major improvements in the department. “I’m so hopeful for the department again with Richard at the helm.” 

Margaret Berglind, president and CEO of the Child Care Association of Illinois, a statewide association of 60 voluntary agencies that provide such child welfare services as foster care, counseling and adoptions through contracts with DCFS, says of Calica: “He’s a very demanding professional. I think he has the highest of standards of care for kids and the highest of work ethic standards, if you will, for himself and for anybody who wants to be in this field. And we think that’s a good thing because vulnerable kids in Illinois deserve somebody with the highest standards.”

Calica, who describes himself as apolitical and as an independent, says: “You have to be somewhat nuts to take this job. But when I was invited to come in for an interview, I got very excited about it. I don’t know whether I would have been excited about this position earlier in my career, when I had a mortgage to worry about and putting a child through college.”

The prospect was exciting, he says, because he believes Illinois is a leader in child welfare, despite the agency’s problems. 

One aspect in which Illinois is a leader is in reducing the number of children taken from their families. The agency went from 52,000 15,400 “without increasing risk to children who are left in their own homes. So that’s monumental. That’s fabulous that we were able to do that. And it was the workers — the staff of DCFS — who did that. It’s not just the leadership. It’s the people on the line who do the work.

“I’ve been in child welfare all my professional life. I didn’t come into this one blindly. I’ve been a consultant to about four former directors of DCFS, both this state and other states. And so I knew what I was walking into. I knew there would be challenges. It’s exciting work.” 

Calica says he has some ideas for turning around some of the bleaker statistics.

One of the first things for Calica to tackle was the overbooked investigators, who, the newspaper determined, had as many as 40 cases at a time, nearly double what is recommended.

The numbers, Calica says, are “out of whack.”

“The long-term consequences are that children will be at risk. In the short term, we’ve run our own statistics and have found that there is no relationship between caseload size and subsequent reports of reinjury. That doesn’t serve as an excuse for high caseloads; I’m not saying high caseloads are safe. But what I’m saying is, at this point, there’s been no empirical evidence that there is a relationship between expanded caseloads and danger. But there will be because the more cases a worker gets, the more pending investigations they have, the more things hang out, the less time there is to attend to individual cases in the detail that you’re supposed to attend to them, and so it’s a recipe for disaster at the end of the day.”

He said in late March that the agency, which had a workforce of 2,919 at that time, aimed to expand by 126 new front-line staff for the current fiscal year. The FY 2013 budget calls for boosting the DCFS staff to 2,961.

He has frozen hires, transfers and promotions unless the positions are front-line staff. The only job anyone can get in DCFS now is in direct service, working with intact families with neglected or abused children or in foster care. He also wants to realign staff.

That realignment — still ongoing at press time and the subject of union discussion — is expected to require the relocation of jobs and the move of middle managers into caseworker positions, according to Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for DCFS.

Calica says: “Right now, I’m doing a very detailed analysis of who’s sitting where and what the volume is where, and where I need my troops. And once we get that, as well as the realignment of what I have in terms of existing silos which don’t need to exist anymore, I think I’ll have adequate staff. And, of course, the union won’t agree with me, as far as I know.

“Unfortunately, as you also saw in the Tribune,” he told Illinois Issues, “I also said, ‘I’m not the commander of my forces.’”

Realignment is “not an easy thing to do when you exist in a statewide situation in a union environment. I’m new to government. Apparently, every time there’s a new problem, you need a new employee. I don’t think that way.”

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents many DCFS employees, says, “We’ve had the opportunity to begin advising the director on what our members do, and what they say they need, and so we hope that continues.” Lindall notes that the agency had 4,000 employees 10 years ago. “They would need a thousand employees to get back to where they were a decade ago.”

He says: “With that acknowledgment that there is a crisis in front-line staffing in DCFS, a handful of new hires or even several dozen employees through reassignments as the director has proposed, is progress, but only an initial step. Our members who’ve been in child protection for years have seen new management before; they’ve seen big plans for reorganization and reallocation and realignment. The question is will those plans will be followed through, and will they be accompanied by reinvestment in the staff and the resources that are needed to achieve the department’s mission?

“It’s frightening when we can’t put an adequate priority on making sure that [there are] enough men and women to go into broken homes and protect kids from abuse and neglect and to do so in timely and effective fashion,” Lindall says.

Ideally, based on national standards, caseworkers should have 12 assignments per month maximum, Calica says, and he’s trying to budget toward a lower number. 

Some of that will come from cutting down waste in the $1.26 billion DCFS budget.

In October 2011, a joint report by the executive inspectors general for the governor and DCFS found “large-scale fraud’’ in which hundreds of millions of dollars were awarded to George Smith, a health services provider whom Erwin McEwen, former DCFS executive director, described to investigators as a “personal mentor and friend.”

Says another former DCFS director, McDonald, “I don’t understand Erwin McEwen’s responses, but I think when you have a provider who across a number of governmental agencies was able to obtain $18 million without any clear, demonstrable proof that he delivered the services — $9 million from DCFS — and then you’re looking at not having sufficient resources at the front line, the only thing you can say about it is that it is a horrible travesty when those circumstances happen. And hopefully, the changes that have been brought about in state government as a result of those reports will ensure this does not happen again.”

Calica, in an e-mail, says: “This was the first issue I addressed when I came on board in December, as I take very seriously my duty to be a responsible steward of the taxpayers’ dollars. I have ended the practice of contracts being awarded out of the DCFS director’s office. All contracts must now be initiated independent of the director’s office, by the DCFS divisions needing the specified service, and all proposed contracts will first be reviewed to ensure they are being awarded solely in the interests of our children and families.”

“In the private sector, there is no room for the kind of mistakes I’ve seen in the public sector,’’ Calica says, noting that at the Juvenile Protective Association, he had to meet nearly every month with a finance committee that included bank presidents, venture capitalists and representatives of major accounting and law firms to explain how the agency’s money was spent. “And besides which, it was their money because they had been making substantial contributions to the agency. So spending money was not something one did flippantly. Not only did one have to account for how you spent the money, but what were the outcomes. What did I get for my buck?”

Separate from fraud, the state’s budget crisis is also squeezing DCFS, which Calica says means focusing on the agency’s core mission.

“We’re in a very constrained environment, when Medicaid and the retirement fund have eaten up huge amounts of money, and there’s a $2.8 billion deficit that the state has. I’m the director of the Department of Children and Family Services and a citizen of the state of Illinois. I need garbage collection, schools. I need roads, and I need child protection. Well, as the head of child protection ... of course, I have to advocate for my kids, but just as in any family, when there are limited dollars, one has to decide what one wants to spend their dollars on and what they don’t want to spend their dollars on.” 

Calica says, “I think some of the people in the world of prevention might be screaming about what the department does next year in terms of its contracts, but my mandate is to handle the kids who’ve been abused and neglected and to work with them and their families. And so if you don’t have a founded complaint of abuse and neglect, you’re not my business if I don’t have any money.”

Long term, he says, “my goals are to decrease the number of children that we take away or raise. And to make much speedier decisions on behalf of children and families and with children and families about what the long-term costs of their lives are going to be like.

“I want to continue that and to get leaner and meaner about how we do it. As I said, every time there’s a new problem, there’s a new employee. I believe in giving the people who are doing [the work] the authority to make decisions about what they are doing. I don’t need five people checking on what they are doing. ... I am going to focus very heavily on my front-line staff and my supervisory staff and provide them with as much support as I can because that’s where all the action is.”

Though he majored in psychology at Brooklyn College in his native New York, Calica says he fell into social work as a career by accident but came to love the profession. Wife Judy explains that the couple graduated from Brooklyn College in 1967, at the height of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, which had a spending focus on social services. After a stint in Los Angeles, where Calica had a job as a child welfare worker, the couple came to Illinois to study at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Work Administration. During his two years of study for a doctorate degree, which he didn’t end up finishing, he had a clinical internship at the Michael Reese Hospital Department of Psychiatry and the Illinois Department of Mental Health. In that program, he ran two in-patient units and was the chief social worker.

“I began to figure out that there’s a science, and an art to it as well, and it became very interesting in terms of how do you understand how man comes to grief. And how do you understand how what you’re doing as a social worker helps people solve those problems. What is it you have that you can bring into the picture that will actually make a difference? The pursuit of that kind of issue has always been fascinating to me. ... So I actually know what it’s like to sit with a human being who’s suffering and try to get them from point A to point B. This is not just an administrative job. I know about the work. I’m as interested in administration and raising money as I am in psychotherapy and theories of human change and development.”

He was 32 years old when he got the job at the Juvenile Protective Association.

“The board was looking for a new leader, and the consultants at the agency had come into contact with me at graduate school and through my work in the professional community and recommended to the board they might want to speak with me. It was a nice fit. I didn’t know much about fundraising, but that was easy enough to learn. That’s a substantial portion of an executive director’s job. It was exciting.

“My career preference exam [in college] said I should be a bank president ... or an accountant. Not interesting, although it works out that when you’re the director of a program, you have to know about stuff like that, so it comes in helpful and handy.”

Calica, the son of Jewish Russian-Polish immigrants, grew up Brooklyn in what he calls a Jewish ghetto. He was one of four children. His father died when he was 8. 

“I guess I grew up in an environment where the message was that knowledge will make you free and that you could achieve anything that you wanted to, if you worked hard enough to do it. My mother couldn’t spell her way out of a paper bag. She kept an address book, and everybody was under N for neighbors. That was her filing system. My older brother made it out first. He’s an M.D./Ph.D. — a neurosurgeon and a Ph.D. in mathematics. We were lucky, I guess, to all be endowed with high IQs, and that helps in making it out as well.”

Of his own only child, Andrew, a 33-year-old attorney in New York, Calica says: “We waited 12 years until we had children — child — on purpose. ... We waited until we’d both finished graduate school and we both had psychoanalyzed, and we both felt as if we were at a point in our lives where we were capable of providing for a child psychologically as well as financially. I didn’t raise a child as a therapist. ... My job wasn’t to be my child’s therapist; it was to be his parent.” 


Quoting Richard Calica

On DCFS staffing:

“Sometimes in our work, the judgments are relatively simple. You have an infant with bruises on their head, you take custody. You should. Shouldn’t mess around with that. Other times, it’s a lot more complicated in terms of trying to figure out things. The other part of our business, which is somewhat not transparent to the public, is that 75 percent of complaints are neglect. Neglect, as it’s defined, is a legal justification for the state to intervene in a family’s life. It is not a diagnostic category, nor does it tell you what the underlying conditions and contributing factors are toward the neglect, and doesn’t necessarily give you a long-term indicator of what the risk might be of that neglect. For instance, if you come into a house that’s in disarray, that’s dirty, there’s no food in the house, there are objects around the house that the kid can get hurt with and stuff like that, you know that’s an environment that’s injurious or whatever. Well, what caused that? Was the parent on drugs? Is the parent developmentally delayed? Is the parent massively depressed? Is the parent mentally ill? Is the parent just poor? Is it some combination of those things? The intervention for any one of those things is different. It takes a different amount of time, and there’s different prognostic pictures for some of that. So just seeing that a house is in disarray doesn’t immediately tell you — well, it might tell you, ‘I can’t leave the kid in here because it’s so filthy and so bereft of any kind of support in terms of having food for the kid, hot and cold running water and heat.’ And most cases, that’s not the case — so it becomes a more difficult long-term event to ferret those kinds of things out. So when I say a case, one has to take that with some notion the workload has to be tempered by what’s going on as well. Investigating sexual molestation might be different — that physical abuse might be different than neglect, might take different amounts of time. A family with five kids might be a lot of more time than a family with one kid because you might have to talk to a lot more collaterals. You might have to talk to all those children; you might have to find out what’s going on with any one of them. So a case is not a case, but 12-to-1 is what the accepted standard is, and 15-to-1 with intact families and children in foster care. That’s the caseload quote standard.”

On caseloads in Illinois:

“Sometimes we’re above, and sometimes we’re below it on average, but on average doesn’t help me because if I have somebody who has 19 and on average I’m saying it’s 15, that doesn’t help the person with 19. So there’s a spread there, and we’re trying to aim these people, in terms of the new hires, exactly where we need them, based on caseload sizes. And then we’ll see, based on supervision and support, how to get those caseloads down. Now those [pending investigations] tend to pile up in favor of new mandates and investigations. So if I have 40 pending cases that are over the deadline, and you keep piling new investigations on me, then I get totally buried. And that’s dangerous. So we have to help to manage the pendings. As in any corporation or workforce situation, some people are a lot more efficient than others. I have people that are way over standard, that do all of their investigations in time [and] have zero pendings. Then I have people way over their investigations, that have 40 pendings. So there’s a difference in terms of people’s capacity to perform.” 

On being a social worker:

“I think the most rewarding part is that people, regardless of their situation, seem to come up with solutions that work for them in terms of regulating their anxiety and doing the best they can. And sometimes you find people who are so damaged that regardless of what they try, they’re stuck in quicksand and they can’t get out. They’re doomed to repeat their past, no matter how hard they try not to. It’s difficult to watch people struggle that way and not be able to make it out. Sometimes, people come to the best solution that they can. That is, they’re pretty functional from the outside. You know, if you or I would come across them on a bus or go for a cup of coffee, everything would seem great, but their capacity for intimate relationships could be very damaged. Their ability to trust other people or to fall in love, which is really higher-order kinds of functioning, is really damaged. But there are people who’ve been damaged early in their lives and are not able to make it out, and you can trash a human being in the first year of their life so they are finished, and that’s it, no matter what anybody tries. It won’t help. That’s the sad part. We see that with a lot of kids that were brought over from eastern Europe and came over here to be adopted, and their parents found out they had a total incapacity to attach and to love and to show anything back to another human being, regardless of what they try. Some people get really hurt early in life, and that’s the hard — I think the hardest — part of that anybody tries.

“Actually, the interesting thing is you’re much more likely to survive psychologically if you were physically abused than if you are neglected. Neglect is a much more pernicious problem from a psychological standpoint. Not from a legal or a physical standpoint, being hit. Assuming for the moment that we’re not talking about breaking bones or damaging internal organs. Being smacked or being hit, it’s an event that has a beginning and end. Whereas the outgoing issue of being neglected, you have to figure, well, what’s so wrong with me, that I’m so unlovable that Mommy and Daddy won’t take care of me. And you get the picture very soon, since kids are very egocentric and think that they control the world and everything revolves around them, that they come to the notion that the reason I’m not being taken care of is that there’s something defective with me, and if only I do this dance differently, somebody’s going to love me more. And they keep on picking people who are incapable of loving anybody, and no matter what they do, it doesn’t happen. And so they get stuck. That’s what the stuck is.”

Illinois Issues, June 2012

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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